The mEdium is the mEssage

I took this photo just around the corner from where I live. Graffiti like this is a common sight in most cities and all are communicating a message – in some cases one that the general public can understand or in other cases targeted to a specific audience. Aside from the message, there are a lot of other factors that impacts what this graffiti is trying to communicate: the type of paint, design, typography, color, the surface it’s on, and so on. Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 classic book “The Medium is the Massage” is just about that – each medium produces (or communicates) a different effect on us and our senses.

Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.

Canadian Marshall McLuhan is universally regarded as the father of communications and media studies and prophet of the information age. The book, written and designed in an abstract/experimental/artistic way, is McLuhan’s “prophetic perceptions on life in the age of electronic information” – remember this was written in the 1960’s!! This was before the internet, mobile phones, social media, and all the technology we have today to communicate and connect people. Almost fifty years later, a lot of what McLuhan observes in his book is very much applicable to today and addresses the evolution of not the ‘what’, but the ‘how’ in which we communicate. Technologies – from clothing to the wheel to the book, and beyond – are the messages themselves, not the content of the medium.

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“You see, Dad, Professor McLuhan says the environment that man creates becomes his medium for defining his role in it. The invention of type created linear, or sequential, thought, separating thought from action. Now, with TV and folk singing, thought and action are closer and social involvement is greater. We again live in a village. Get it?”

His main thesis in the book looks at how any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments, and the effect of technology on our behaviors and responses. While he considered these environments to include television and radio, we can also think about how the computers, the internet, mobile phones, and tablets have also influenced how we react and respond to them. He also believes that we can’t understand how these mediums work with the tools or perceptions of the past.

Our official culture is trying to force the new media to do the world of the old… A common failure [in media]: The attempt to do a job demanded by the new environment with the tools of the old.

He also emphasized that we need to consider the views and perceptions of youth rather than having the door “slammed in their faces by rear-view-mirror society“, and uses a great quote from J. Robert Oppenheimer:

There are some children playing in the street who could solve some of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago.

Beyond the book, McLuhan’s most famous, this 45-minute documentary on his Life and Times shows that despite the fame he gained from his studies into media, advertising, and the impact on people, McLuhan was a private man.

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